Category Archives: Grief & Cancer

The Call You Can No Longer Make

call dad

I was six years old. A long-time friend of my father’s was visiting from the East coast, and we were returning from taking him out to dinner. It was late, and I had been dozing in the car on the way home. I woke up when we pulled into the garage, but I wanted my dad to carry me, so I continued to sit curled up on the back seat and hoped I appeared to be sleeping. At some point my father reached in the car and pulled me to him to carry me to my bed. I wanted to seem convincingly asleep, so I let my arm drop backwards over his shoulder and stick out to the side, as if I couldn’t control it. My dad’s friend, a photographer, commented on the position of my arm and said that he wanted to take a picture. Afraid of potential repercussions (slide shows with the extended family viewing the photo projected onto the living room wall), I let my arm fall back into place as my dad carried me upstairs. He rarely carried me, but I loved when he did. 

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I read an article recently that was written by a man whose father had died five years before, and I was very interested in it because as of last month my dad has been gone five years. I was searching online for opinions about how long it takes to get over the death of a loved one since I still grieve for my dad, sometimes as much as I did in the beginning of the process.

Many sources say it takes ten years, some say five. But this article, written by the man whose father had been dead for five years, says that you never “get over” the death of a loved one. Furthermore, the man (who was not a counselor or therapist, just a guy missing his dad) said, Why would we want to? Why should we want to “get over” someone who had been a huge part of our lives, who loved us unconditionally, and whose love we still feel?

“Getting over” means different things to different people. To some it means when their life will get back to some sort of normal. Others just want to know when they will stop crying every day. But I think for many of us it means when we finally make peace with the fact that they’re really gone, that we won’t wake up after having dreamt of them and think, I need to call Dad; I haven’t talked to him in a while, and then with great sadness and disappointment remember that you can’t.

And that’s what I think that guy meant by “getting over” – that those things will never stop happening. Those things are normal, and we should embrace them. Those things mean we haven’t forgotten, and that our loved ones will always be with us.

[Image credit: DaftPoster]

Cancer Is Just a Word

Cancer’s just a word until you witness it ravage someone you love. And if you are with that person, that loved one, when they take their last breath, it changes you forever. Sometimes in ways you wouldn’t expect.

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Four years ago this month my father died of colon cancer after it had taken over his body and took up residence in his liver. In a previous post I wrote in detail about my experience with caring for him in his final weeks, days, hours, and minutes. Sometimes it feels like four years ago, and sometimes it feels like four months. Sometimes it is a compartmentalized sad memory, and other times it is still raw, and my grief can overtake me in an instant.

And at these times I wonder – how much longer will it be like this? I read or heard somewhere that it takes ten years to work through the loss, to get to the place where you still miss them – you always will – but the grief no longer weighs over you as heavily, as unpredictably. You are close to a place of peace.

I feel my dad in unexpected places and in different ways. Last week I was driving home from work the day after the anniversary of his death and it hit me, like so many other times in the past four years, that he’s gone, he’s really gone. And I sobbed as I continued to drive, the thought occurring to me that it would be safer if I pulled over. And then I imagine that I’m being pulled over by a cop, and he comes up to the window and I’m crying and he thinks I’m just trying to get out of a ticket and I say My dad died and he asks when, and I say Yesterday, because that’s the truth. And he asks me for more details to determine if I’m telling the truth so I answer his questions and he must be convinced because he says I’m sorry and tells me to wait until I’m calm and drive safely. But I never pull over and I never got pulled over and I keep driving, gasping, trying to stifle the sobs, and I get home and pull in the driveway and go into the house and cry even harder and wonder Where is this coming from after four years?

Fortunately, it’s not always in sad ways that I feel him. A month ago I went to see a regional choir concert. At one point only men were on the stage, and they sang a song in their deep, resonant voices that reverberated throughout the theater. My dad was a singer, a tenor. I loved his beautiful pitch-perfect voice that I heard throughout my life and am blessed to have several recordings of it. So I’m sitting there in the theater listening to these men’s resounding voices fill me with memories, and suddenly I feel his presence, strong and certain. He is there hovering around me, and I smile, basking in the warmth. A lump forms in my throat but I take a deep breath and continue to smile, happy to have him near me, enjoying the ethereal singing that brought him.

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That word – cancer – now has a profound meaning for me. For some it is a raider that must be conquered, for others it is a thief. For me it is both of those things, but it is also a lense that makes me view life differently, knowing that it should be lived fully and openly. That dreams should be chased and trips should be taken and people should be hugged as often as possible. That we should love with abandon and live without regret. And for that, I am surprisingly and inexplicably grateful.

A Different Kind of Being Right

When I was in the middle of my college years in Oregon, I decided to change majors and move 700 miles back to southern California. My dad was still employed by the City of Los Angeles doing administrative work, so I lived with him and my grandmother while I started working and got my bearings. It was an enjoyable, interesting time. My grandmother liked having someone to cook and care for again, and I loved listening to her stories about her growing up years. It was also the first time my dad and I started to get to know each other as individuals. He patiently indulged me by listening to my techno dance music that I was excited about, and I accompanied him to services at the Orthodox Christian church he had recently begun attending. After a lifetime of devout Byzantine Catholicism, something compelled him to convert, and this was something he was excited about. So we did our mutual indulging, and we learned something from each other along the way.

Since I had grown up in southern California, I still had many friends there and got back in touch with them upon my return. I went to dinner with one of them and learned that his father had recently passed away unexpectedly. It rattled me, and I told my dad about it that night. He had met and talked with my friend’s father when we were in high school. My dad was saddened by the news, and what he said about it has stayed with me for over twenty years.

“It just goes to show that you never know when it will be your time to go. You have to be right with God.”

I’ve thought about that a lot, especially since my beliefs about religion and God have evolved over the years. I used to think, You don’t just have to be right with God. What about the people in your life? Don’t you have to be right with them, too?

I moved back to Oregon shortly after that exchange, having only been with my dad and grandmother for seven months. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday with them and, in a rare moment of clarity, somehow felt that I needed to finish my degree where I had started it. When I graduated two years later, I was pregnant with Nigel.

Life did as life does, and the busyness of it kept me preoccupied. Still, from time to time my dad’s iconic quote would pop into my mind, such as when friends or other family members died. Finally, after many years of mulling it over, I realized that if God is with us and in us, and we are all connected, then “being right with God” is being right with the people in our lives. It is the same concept, the same connection. It is all one.

Yesterday would have been my dad’s 70th birthday, so I thought about him constantly. I wondered how many years a loved one has to be gone before you stop missing them so much. It dawned on me that I would never stop missing my dad, and it’s because he was right with me. He was right with God, and he was right with me. And he’s still right with me, every day.

[image credit: embroidery.about.com]

5 Questions for a Grief and Abuse Survivor

So much about life is about perspective, and that is just one of the many things I learned while reading Laura McHale Holland’s enlightening memoir, Reversible Skirt. In it, Holland writes from her child-self perspective as she tells the story of growing up in the shadow of her mother’s suicide, her father’s rapid remarriage to a woman who becomes abusive to Holland and her two sisters, and, a few years later, their father’s death.

I asked her 5 questions about how these experiences affected her relationships throughout her life, anything positive that she learned, and what is the most important thing to know about how grief and/or abuse can affect family dynamics.

1) You experienced a double-blow of losing both of your parents during childhood and being raised by an abusive stepparent. What fears did both of these factors cause for you?

As a child, even when my father was still alive, I was afraid if I didn’t do exactly what I was told I would be sent to the orphanage where my sisters spent some time right after our mother died. Later, as a teen, I was terrified most of the time. I didn’t have something specific on my mind; it was an ever-present, general feeling of dread. Looking back, I think I was afraid to grow up because in my not-yet-mature mind, to accept how much I was changing, would have meant I was moving on without my father, and I didn’t want to do that. For several years after his death, I think I was suspended emotionally and in denial deep in my heart even though I knew, obviously, that he was never coming back. I think I thought I could hold onto him in some way if I remained the same; however, I was also rebellious and dissatisfied. I wanted everything about my life, including me, to change. So I was seriously conflicted. Later, as an adult, I was afraid I would commit suicide, as my mother had done, because I was suicidal as a teen, and depression haunted me for years afterward. I was also afraid to have children because I thought I might be an abusive parent like my stepmother was, so I didn’t settle down and become a stepmom and a mom until I was 35, at which time I felt I could trust myself to be level headed under pressure. This all sounds like I was a walking basket of fears, but I’m just focusing on that aspect of my experience because that’s where the question led me.

2) Was there anything positive you were able to learn from the experience?

From the way my father and other relatives mismanaged the aftermath of my mother’s suicide, I learned how very important is to keep the lines of communication open with those you love after a tragedy. Had my father been able gather my sisters and me close to him, even just for a few minutes, the day our mother died and tell us she was gone but he would always love us that would have made a world of difference. He wasn’t able to do that, though. He got us out of the house immediately and probably didn’t realize how harsh he was in the way he did it. He then had a brief breakdown in the days following her death. When we reunited with him months later, he pretended like our mother had never existed, which robbed us of being able to own whatever love we had felt for her, especially since he remarried and brought in a new “mother” right away. That loss remains an empty hole in my life. My father could have helped fill it just by talking about my mother from time to time, sharing memories and anecdotes, what he loved about her, how they met, what she liked to eat, what her favorite movie was, silly or tender things she might have done, etc. So, when something truly painful happens, and children are involved, it’s important for the adults to be willing to face their feelings so they can be present for the children, because otherwise, you’re just making a traumatic situation far worse instead of moving toward healing.

From my father’s early death, I learned at a young age how essential it is to openly appreciate the people you love because it really is true that you never know how much time you will have with the people you cherish. This is something I have never forgotten, and I think it has been a good thing.

From my stepmother’s abuse, I learned how important it is to respect young people in your care. I also learned how vile it is when someone abuses a position of power. I vowed I would never abuse authority if I had it, and I think I’ve done a good job of carrying through on that. There are many times, especially in families behind closed doors, when a parent or sibling clips a child’s wings in large and small ways that nobody but the perpetrator and victim will ever see. That is when someone’s true character comes out, and I think it’s an area many of us could stand to look at in our own relationships.

Also, living through trauma in my formative years made me less fearful later on of difficulties that might come my way because I had lost much already and was, in time, basically OK. Another positive thing, probably the most positive thing I learned actually, is how very much my sisters and I could do for each other. Realizing that we could make a huge difference in each other’s lives, even though we bumbled a lot, was a powerful experience.

3) What would you say to your childhood or teenage self?

To my childhood self, I just want to say thank you. It feels like the girl inside of me pestered me to write her story, but I didn’t take her seriously and put the project off for years. But I finally listened to that little voice inside, and once I committed to the project, the voice just flowed through me and onto the page. It seems it was my duty to write Reversible Skirt to release that child into the world so she could touch the hearts of people who have had similar experiences, children who are suffering now, and others who want to help families that are putting their lives together after a tragedy. It’s like she has work to do that is connected to me, but also separate from me and much bigger than just telling my story. To my teenage self, I’d like to say, you are forgiven completely; please come out and play. I’m working on a sequel to Reversible Skirt, and the teen I used to be is the opposite of the child who was always knocking on my door. My teenage self is resistant, sulking and quiet. It’s slow going.

4) What advice would you give to someone in a relationship with a person who had grown up in a situation similar to yours?

That’s a tough question because we all respond differently to the traumas we experience, and I can probably only speak with any real authority about myself. Some folks might lash out; others might withdraw; still others might be reckless. Each of these coping mechanisms would probably need a different sort of response. Some folks are more resilient than others, too. I think about my two sisters, Kathy and Mary Ruth. I went through just about everything in childhood with them, but the specifics of how we act in relationships and what we expect and need are very different. I guess some things that could apply to many relationships would be to spend time doing things together that are enjoyable for both of you, figure out through trial and error ways to express love for that person in ways the person can accept, and not give up or take it personally if the person you love withdraws or acts in other ways that seem out of touch with what’s really going on in the present, and to be encouraging in the areas where you see that the person struggles. I think it’s also common for people who were orphaned when young to feel like we don’t really belong anywhere, that we’re outsiders looking in, and that unconditional love is not our birthright. If we are highly functional, that isn’t something people would ever guess. And if a parent commits suicide, that adds another whammy to the mix because there’s no way around the fact that when parents, for whatever reasons, choose to end their lives, they are also choosing to abandon the precious babies they brought into the world, and this is deeply damaging to the children immediately, as well as later on when they realize that for so many parents, their children give them reason to fight to keep living during their darkest hours. So TLC and kindness are always in order. Always.

5) What in your opinion is the most important thing to know about how grief and/or abuse can affect family dynamics?

If grief is not faced and dealt with in a compassionate way, it stunts people’s ability to be connected and truly present with each other. This causes misunderstandings, rifts and resentments that can continue for years. And abuse makes for families in which nobody is happy, nobody thrives. Children live in fear, biding their time until they can get out, but given the lack of proper guidance and love provided in the formative years, often when the children grow up and get away, they don’t have the skills to thrive. Many become abusers themselves, and the cycle continues. Anything we can do to bring love and resources to children in these kinds of families is helpful.

Laura, thank you so much for your generous, honest, and empowering responses to my questions.

Everyone, thank you for reading this interview, and please be sure to check out Reversible Skirt, available as an ebook or in paperback.

The Cell War Notebooks

It’s not a good statistic. 41% of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lives. Of course, it’s necessary to be familiar with risk factors to know where you really stand. But that’s a sobering thought for anyone, and especially those of us who’ve lost a close relative that way.

As many of you know, my father lost his battle with colon cancer in April, 2011.  I was with him in his final days and weeks (and even minutes), and the experience profoundly affected my life. Going through it, I felt robbed of future time that I could have spent with my father – traveling, wine tasting, and doing all the other things we enjoyed together. But I also realized that even though my dad died pretty young (67), there are many others taken by cancer who are far younger. For many years I’ve contributed to Children’s Cancer Research Fund; I just couldn’t fathom that children should have to suffer through this. It’s something that’s always weighed on me.

Then, after my dad died, I started thinking about the younger parents with cancer, the ones whose kids are still kids. And when I heard about Julie Forward DeMay, who died at 37 of cervical cancer, and the blog-a-thon in her honor, I had to get involved. Not only did Julie have a daughter, she worked with special needs children. And that, of course, means the world to me.

Today, January 31, is IndiesForward day – a special blogging event dedicated to spreading the legacy of Julie Forward DeMay and her touching memoir, The Cell War Notebooks.

What would you do when faced with a battle for your life? Author, photographer and creative spirit Julie Forward DeMay took on her fight with cervical cancer like she was playing for the new high score in her favorite video game, Asteroids. Inspiring, witty, beautiful and brutally honest, The Cell War Notebooks is a compilation of the blog Julie kept during the last seven months of her life. It’s a powerful read for anyone, whether your life has been touched by cancer or not. Check out the paperback on Amazon and keep up with the latest news on Facebook. All proceeds from book sales go to Julie’s nine- year-old daughter.

Grief, the Holidays, and Posthumous Love

My dad in 2009 with his 3rd grandchild (my nephew)

About four years ago, I was on the phone with my dad and he enthusiastically suggested that he come up for Christmas.  As he lived 700 miles away, he would have flown and then stayed with me. And this would have been fine except for the fact that at the time I hosted the extended family Christmas dinner with my mom and her side of the family. And at the time, my divorced parents were not exactly on good terms. I opted to avoid any drama and encouraged my dad to come up for a visit in the spring.

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The holidays are supposed to be the hardest time after a loved one is gone. Last year was the first holiday season since my dad’s death, and it was very hard. I kept replaying that conversation in my mind, wishing I had thought, To hell with any stupid drama, I haven’t had Christmas with my dad in eight years, and we’ll make it work. And now another year has gone by and I still feel the same way. Still regretting that I put him off just to avoid potential awkwardness and tension.

Because now he’s gone, and I’ll never be able to have him here for Christmas again. I’ll never get to see him in his red sweater that looked like cashmere but probably wasn’t. And his grey tweed pants (he called them slacks) that he wore with it. I’ll never hear him singing Nat King Cole Christmas carols again. Never hear him say, “Christ is born!” when he answers the phone and be able to say, “Glorify Him!” in response. Never clink glasses with him again, toasting the day with Cinzano. Or eggnog later by the fire. I’ll never again get to hug him when he leaves to go home.

So I go out to my living room and start flipping through my photo albums. I see him on Easters, Christmases, family barbeques. I see him when he came up to visit each of his grandchildren after their births. I see him on trips, or just relaxing with his cat. I see him in the red sweater. I see him clinking glasses. I realize that I had many Christmases with him. And even though in his last ten years on earth he lived 700 miles away from me, I still saw him a lot during that time.

I need to let go of my regret about what would have been his last Christmas in my home. It’s something I’ve struggled with for a while, and I know that many other people have similar regrets, especially around the holidays. We beat ourselves up that we should have done something or shouldn’t have. We can’t go back. We can’t change it. Beating ourselves up isn’t going to make any difference! Does it bring them back? Does it make us feel better? Does it help anyone? No. It’s not serving any purpose.

This morning, after I had started writing this post, I received an email from my brother. He was thinking about Dad too, and missing him. He forwarded a notice that Dad’s favorite Trappist Belgian beer is now being carried at a local wine specialty store and commented on how happy Dad would have been, especially since before he died he had personally requested them to import it. And as much as I know my brother misses our dad, he spent the bulk of the email celebrating him instead of mourning him. I know Dad would prefer it that way. I know he’s not standing up there, leaning over a cloud, yelling, “I told you I had cancer! You should have let me come for Christmas that year!”

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Grief and the holidays are unwelcome bedfellows. But missing our loved ones at certain times of the year (even more than we usually do) is something we can’t change, just like we wish we could change whatever it is we beat ourselves up over. I feel certain that for most of those things, we’re not being held accountable up there in the sky. We hold our hearts hostage instead of opening them up to all the posthumous love raining down. It’s there – every time I hear a Nat King Cole song, clink my glass, or see a red sweater. I’m letting go of the regret and, as always, holding onto the love.

The Life in a Number

at a castle in Hungary with my sister, Anastasia, and our dad, 2007

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I was filling out a medical form today, doing the family history section, and for the first time since his death almost four months ago, I had to fill in the “age-of-death” box for my father. Sixty-seven. I know there are people, children, unfortunately, whose parents die at considerably younger ages than that, but the very sad fact is that I’d hoped – expected – to have about twenty-five more years with him.

I tell myself how grateful I should be that I had the time with him that I did, that, in my adulthood, we developed a very positive relationship. And I am grateful. Because some people don’t even have that. I appreciate every moment I had with him, every memory that I hope will linger the rest of my life.

But that doesn’t make me miss him any less. That doesn’t make the grief go away, the wishing he was still here.  Wishing he could read the new book I’m writing. Wishing I could pick up the phone and talk to him, hear about his most recent international trip, tell him I love him.

I take a break, go make and eat my dinner. I’m by myself while my boys are visiting their dad, so I read this month’s National Geographic while I eat. There’s an article on Myanmar, a country Dad loved. He’d been there twice I think, perhaps more. I look around my home and see so many lovely international souvenirs that I inherited from him – the silk rugs from China (where I watched him diplomatically haggle), beaded tapestries from India and Thailand, an embroidered pillow from Greece, an alpaca chullo hat from Peru. I remember climbing the Eiffel Tower with him on one trip and, on a later trip, watching him try not to cry as he embraced relatives in Slovakia whom he hadn’t seen for forty years.

I remember Dad taking my brother and me to Dodger games, how he held me up over the waves at Laguna Beach, how he sang so beautifully at church every Sunday, how he read bedtime stories to us. I remember the day that he taught me to ride a bike, jogging along beside me, letting go when he knew I was ready. And then there was the year and a half that he babysat his grandsons for two afternoons every week, because Nigel had been rejected by various daycares due to his autism.  There are all the trips, all the phone calls, the plays Dad and I saw together. All those memories add up to so much more than a number on a form.

I think about how much that little box on the medical form really holds. Not just the things he’d done with his life and the places he’d been, but the love. So much love. “67” in a box that says “age of death” above it only says that he didn’t live a very long life. It doesn’t say how much life was in those 67 years. And if the box took up the whole page it still wouldn’t be big enough.

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Grief, I’ve come to learn, cannot be confined to a time period or a schedule. It’s a lot like love in that way, which continues on long after death. And, like life, it won’t fit into a little box with a number scrawled inside it. It’s big and it’s full, consuming and unapologetic. I’m making my way through it, holding onto the memories, feeling the love.

What My Father Taught Me

Last year on Father’s Day, I wrote a post at Hopeful Parents celebrating my father’s life. Little did I know that a year later I would be writing here about his death. How do you say goodbye to a parent? Such a post takes a lifetime to write – a lifetime of learning, a lifetime of experiences, and a lifetime of love.

Although my father had battled colon cancer for three years, his rapid decline and death came as a shock. Around the time of Dad’s diagnosis, I read a statistic listing colon cancer with a survival rate of 85%, and I thought, Oh, he’ll be fine. But he wasn’t. He was in the 15% who didn’t survive. And I thought, why my dad? Why did my dad have to be in the 15%? At age 64 when diagnosed, he hadn’t eaten beef or pork for over thirty years! After all the treatments, the dietary changes, the positive thinking and prayer – why him? To lose a loved one to cancer is to have to live with many unanswered questions.

In addition to my unwavering belief – nay, my assumption – that my father would easily beat the cancer, there was his own unshakable, infectious optimism that he would do the same. He dove into his therapies – two rounds of chemo and one of unconventional hyperthermal treatment and radiation – and started drinking daily green smoothies. On his own he researched various supplements he could take (and took them), read tons of books on how to heal oneself of cancer, and listened to brain entrainment CDs so that his mind could help with the process. A devoutly religious man, my Orthodox Christian father, who had been a deacon for many years, also had countless people praying for him.

But what really made me believe that he would be fine was his positive attitude about all of it. He continued to travel the world, adding to his growing list of ultimately 55 countries he had visited throughout his abridged retirement. He called and emailed every week with updates about his health, and no matter what his condition was, including at one point a botched surgery leaving him with a severed ureter and a painful stent to fix it, he never complained. He never asked “why me?” or expressed resentment. Even at the end he retained his positive attitude. And the end was about as horrible as an end could be.

A month before he died, my father’s doctor told him he should stop driving because his hyperthermal and radiation treatments had made him too weak to do so. He was also experiencing ascites, abdominal fluid build-up due to his liver shutting down, but Dad made it sound like it was a side effect of his treatment, and I believed him. Because of the fluid build-up (ten or more liters in his abdomen at any given time), he was not able to eat much of anything. Somehow I believed that if he just took a break from the treatment (to stop the ascites), then he would be able to eat more and get some strength back. And then he could resume treatment and be fine. Oh, he’ll be fine.

But the ascites got so bad that he had to be hospitalized, and it was there that the doctors informed my brother and sisters that our dad had a few weeks left to live. My two teenage sons and I flew down to southern California from our home in Oregon, and my sister Macrina, who also lives in Oregon, flew down with her three-month-old daughter to say goodbye. Per Dad’s request, our sister, brother, and sister-in-law who live near him had brought him home to spend his final weeks on hospice care.

After we arrived, my sons spent the afternoon visiting with their loving grandfather, who had provided Grandpa Daycare for them when they were little and took them to Thailand when they were big. They held up various fascinating souvenirs around his house and asked, “Where’s this from, Grandpa?” They marveled at his massive movie collection and told him they loved him. Then I took them to stay with their dad, who lives in Los Angeles, for several days so I could care for my father.

There is nothing that can prepare you for the reality of caring for an incapacitated, dying parent. Yes, you get to say goodbye, but it is a horribly painful goodbye. Dad’s abdomen was so swollen with ascites that he could not walk. I spoon-fed him soup and small chunks of fruit and held straws to his lips for him to drink liquids. Per his request, I cleaned his teeth with a toothpick. I brushed his teeth, washed his face, and changed his diaper with the help of my siblings. When he was ready, Macrina lifted him, and I guided the bedside commode underneath him so that he could forgo the diaper for a bowel movement. Then she sat with him and patiently, lovingly coached him through the process while I ran to the other room and cried.

Combined with the sadness of caring for my father because he was dying, I tried to clean out his kitchen in preparation for the live-in caregiver we would need to hire and burst into tears when I discovered four identical bottles of organic extra virgin olive oil that Dad would never be able to use. That he had probably bought on sale, anticipating that he would beat the cancer and be around long enough to use four large bottles of olive oil. My sister Anastasia found a pint glass from her college that Dad had bought during a visit to her, and she had never seen it before. We found my sons’ birth announcements, worn at the corners, along with probably every card we’d ever sent to him. Everywhere we looked there were reminders of both his love for us and his hope for the future. He never gave up. He tried so hard to fight the cancer and at the same time keep a positive attitude about it.

That night, Macrina and my little niece slept in Dad’s bedroom while I stayed on the futon in the living room, where his hospital bed was set up. All night long, Dad whispered what sounded like prayers and supplications. Usually I couldn’t make out the words, but many times I heard him say “thank you,” over and over again. Even as he faced an awful, untimely death, he taught me to be gracious. Sometimes I heard him say, “I’m ready,” and at one point he called out, “Take me now, please,” and I bolted upright in bed, my heart in my throat, listening to his breathing. I remained on the futon in the far corner of the room to give him his privacy, but a while later he called out to me, and I ran over to him. Thankful for the darkness so he couldn’t see the tears streaming down my face, I said, “Dad, I know this must be so confusing for you.” In his weak voice he said, “I just don’t know what’s going to happen to me.” I took his hand and, choking on my words, said, “In my heart, I feel – I know – that what a person believes is true for them. What you believe will be true for you. I’m certain of that, Dad.” He said softly, “Thank you. I needed to hear that,” and then he went to sleep. It was about 4:30 in the morning, and I lay on the futon and quietly cried.

That day was Sunday, the day Macrina had to fly back. She had the wonderful idea of giving a little goodbye party for Dad – just his four kids and his youngest grandchild. We toasted his life with his favorite drink, Pisco Sours, and opened a bottle of 2005 Andrew Murray Roasted Slope Syrah, which was divine. Dad wasn’t able to speak much at that point, but we could tell he was happy to have us all there with him. Then Macrina said goodbye to him while my brother and I distracted ourselves by entertaining our niece. I can’t even write about it because I was trying not to hear it. I was trying not to think about how I would have to do the same thing in three days, when it was my time to go back home. While sitting with my dad that afternoon, he had said that he was ready to die, and, fighting back tears, I told him that even though he was ready emotionally and spiritually, according to the doctors his body needed another week or so to catch up. A look of dread passed over his exhausted face, as if he couldn’t bear the thought – and pain – of being in his broken body any longer.

That night the priest came to give my father his last rites, which was surreal. I tried to dissociate from my feelings, telling myself that this was just a prayer service, that, as his doctors said, he still had a few weeks left. I tried not to think about that, either. None of this seemed right. To further distract ourselves, after dinner my brother Lex and I watched a movie in the living room, turning Dad’s bed so that he could see it, too. We watched RED, and Dad seemed to enjoy watching us laugh at the funny scenes. Afterward, Lex slept on the futon in the living room while I tried to catch up on sleep in the bedroom. It sounded like things went a little better for Dad, only needing water once or twice that night.

The next day, Anastasia and our sister-in-law, Niika, came out to the house (they live about an hour and a half away). It was a busy day – the hospice nurses came to drain Dad’s abdomen a bit, and a representative from the caregiver company came to do an assessment. The phone frequently rang with friends and relatives wanting to speak to Dad, who was even weaker. I had to hold the phone up to his ear, and he would whisper what he could in response. By that afternoon, he was completely worn out and no longer spoke. Lex had to work the next morning, so he and Niika left, and Anastasia and I remained. The hospice nurses sent over a worker to install an inflatable mattress topper on Dad’s bed in order to avoid bedsores, and Anastasia and I had to move him out of his bed. I sat him up and had him put his arms around my neck so that I could lift him, and Anastasia came up behind him with the wheelchair and guided him into it as he continued to hold onto my neck while I lowered him. This was the man who had climbed Machu Picchu and Mt. Athos, and who, just four months ago, was sprinting through Bangkok as his daughter and grandsons tried to keep up. After I sat him in the wheelchair, I started to stand up, but he kept his arms around my neck, continuing to hold onto me, holding on for dear life. Anastasia, through tears, said, “He just wants to hug,” and so, sobbing, I hugged my father, for what I didn’t know was the last time.

The worker came in and quickly installed the vinyl mattress topper, and then Anastasia and I painstakingly moved our father back into his bed. We covered him and made sure he was as comfortable as possible. Completely exhausted, he fell asleep, and we ran into the bedroom and held each other as we cried, realizing that Dad was weakening by the hour. The hospice nurses had admonished us to give him an antibiotic so the site of his abdominal draining would not get infected, so I crushed the pill and mixed it with juice for him to drink, since he wouldn’t be able to swallow it whole. Within minutes, he vomited it up, and then he continued to wretch and vomit every ten minutes for eight hours straight, throughout the night. It was absolutely horrible. Anastasia and I took turns holding his head over to the side and then running to empty the kidney-shaped container. Several times I called the hospice nurses for help, and finally, at 2:45 AM, one showed up to give him a suppository that would stop the vomiting. It took an hour to take effect, and then we tried to sleep.

I awoke at 7:00 AM and went out to the living room. Anastasia was sleeping on the futon, and Dad’s breathing was extremely labored. I washed my face and got dressed, and then I went to sit by my father. I said, “Hi, Dad, it’s Tanya. I’m here.” Much to my surprise, he opened his eyes and turned his head to look at me for a moment. Then he turned and faced forward and looked up, his jaundiced eyes wide open. His ragged breathing stopped, and I screamed for Anastasia. In my hysteria, I thought that I should hook him up to the oxygen machine to regulate his breathing, so I inserted the tubes in his nostrils and turned on the machine. Shortly after that I realized that the oxygen couldn’t help him, and I shut it off and removed the tubes. Anastasia and I were sitting on either side of him as he exhaled his last breath. I panicked, not sure if that was really it, and I tried to check his pulse and listen for a heartbeat. Finally I acknowledged that he was gone, and then Anastasia and I sobbed our goodbyes.

The aftermath of the days that followed with planning the funeral, canceling the boys’ and my return flights, making dozens of emotion-filled phone calls, shopping for a dress and shoes to wear to my father’s funeral (because I hadn’t packed any), getting through two church services and burying him, and spending an additional week sorting his belongings and cleaning out his home is another story for another day (and this post is long enough already – sorry). In short, I made it home with many lovely international souvenirs, dozens of DVDs, a few bottles of high-quality alcohol, and one bottle of organic extra virgin olive oil. Of course I have my memories; that goes without saying. But I also have the experience of caring for my father in his final days, his final moments, and I am forever changed. In life, he taught me the value of learning and fostered an appreciation for literature, travel, gourmet food and wine, and art, which I will always enjoy. But through his death he taught me to be gracious, to keep trying, and to show love. And as I face life without him in it, I know that what I learned from him will help. And I know that he is always with me, always in my heart.

With my dad in Thailand